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Russia, Burma Sign Nuclear Agreement
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Paul Kerr

The United States has expressed concerns about an agreement Burma and Russia signed May 15 that could pave the way for the construction of a Russian nuclear research reactor in the Southeast Asian nation.

Department of State spokesperson Tom Casey told reporters May 16 that Burma lacks the necessary regulatory and management systems to operate a nuclear power facility safely. Washington “would be concerned about the possibility for accidents, for environmental damage, or for proliferation simply by the possibility of fuel being diverted, stolen, or otherwise removed,” Casey said. He did not argue that the project could be part of a nuclear weapons program.

Although the United States and Burma maintain diplomatic relations, Washington has a series of sanctions in place against Rangoon for such issues as its poor human rights record. The United States downgraded its level of representation in Burma from ambassador to chargé d’affaires after the government’s crackdown on democratic opposition in 1988.

According to a May 15 Russian Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) press release, the two governments signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement in Moscow to establish a “nuclear studies” center in Burma, which will include a 10-megawatt, light water-moderated nuclear reactor.

The fuel for the reactor will contain uranium comprised of 20 percent uranium-235. Rosatom Press Secretary Sergey Novikov said May 15 that Russia is planning initially to supply 10 metric tons of fuel for the reactor, Gazeta.ru reported. Nuclear weapons use uranium containing more than 90 percent uranium-235.

The center also will include a medical isotope production laboratory and nuclear waste treatment and burial facilities. In addition, Russian universities are tasked with training 300–350 specialists for the center, according to Rosatom.

Moscow and Rangoon have been discussing a nuclear project for several years. Although Burma also has expressed interest in constructing nuclear power reactors, a Russian diplomat emphasized in a May 24 interview with Arms Control Today that the new agreement only concerns a research reactor. He added that Russian efforts, such as training Burmese personnel and providing assistance to establish proper regulatory procedures, would mitigate any risks posed by the reactor. (See ACT, May 2004.)

Many details of the agreement, which was signed by Rosatom head Sergey Kiriyenko and Burma’s minister of science and technologies, U Thaung, remain to be negotiated. Indeed, Novikov told the Moscow Times May 15 that the agreement “opens the door so a contract can be concluded.” Similarly, Irina Yesipova, spokesperson for Atomstroyexport, the project’s Russian contractor, said that it is “too early to talk about anything concrete, from timeline to location to expenses,” the Moscow Times reported.

On May 16, Atomstroyexport officials held the first negotiations on the agreement in Moscow with a Burmese delegation, according to a company press release, which provided no further details of the discussions. The next round of talks will take place in Burma in the second half of 2007.

The center will be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, the Rosatom statement said. The research reactor is subject to IAEA safeguards as Burma is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has completed a comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement. Such agreements allow the agency to ensure that parties to the NPT do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes.

Burma also has signed the Treaty of Bangkok, which established a nuclear weapons-free zone in Southeast Asia when it entered into force in 1997.

Posted: June 2, 2007